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Sputnik Drops Journalists after Interview with Erdogan Rival

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu shake hands as they pose for a photograph during a final farewell in Ankara, May 19, 2016.

The Russian-financed Sputnik language service in Turkey canceled a radio program after the show’s three Turkish journalists interviewed a prominent critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The July 19 interview with former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu covered his effort to launch a new party to challenge Erdogan’s AK Party, among other topics.

Twice a week on Sputnik Turkish, journalists Yavuz Oghan, Akif Beki and Ismail Saymaz hosted a call-in program titled “Soylemesi Bizden.” They first pitched the interview for their show but didn’t get approval. Then, Oghan posted it on his YouTube channel, and Sputnik Turkish canceled their contracts.

“Good work never goes unpunished in Turkey,” Oghan later said on Twitter.

Mahir Boztepe, chief editor of Sputnik Turkish, dismissed concerns about censorship.

“We informed Yavuz Oghan that the interview could not be conducted under our broadcast guidelines, but they went ahead with the interview,” he said. “We, under our editorial policy, do not attach importance to a political figure like Davutoglu, and we don’t want to provide a platform for his views. We don’t believe that he is newsworthy,” Boztepe said.

Purported bias

Erdogan’s grip on the media has tightened in the wake of a failed 2016 coup attempt and subsequent constitutional reforms that consolidated his power. Opposition newspapers have been closed and hundreds of journalists have been jailed.

Sputnik’s Turkish language radio service, part of the Russian government-funded Russian Media Agency, has operated in Turkey for the past six years.

The show’s cancellation follows a report this month by a pro-government Turkish think tank that chastised international media organizations, including Sputnik, for alleged antigovernment bias.

The report by the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research, or SETA, compiled social media posts and the employment history of journalists working in Turkey. It cited Oghan for allegedly “posting messages on social media that are critical of the government.”

Beki and Saymaz both wrote on Twitter that Sputnik took their program down “as required by the SETA report.”

Family ties

Davutoglu was Turkey's prime minister from 2014 to 2016, but resigned as Erdogan pushed ahead with plans to strengthen presidential powers. In the interview, he had harsh words for the constitutional reforms that voters approved in 2017, allowing Erdogan to potentially extend his time in office.

In an apparent reference to Erdogan’s son-in-law, who serves as finance minister, Davutoglu said, “Family ties should be kept out of politics.”

Davutoglu also criticized Sputnik’s decision to cancel the radio show.

“There can never be an explanation for this decision,” he wrote on Twitter. “They were only doing journalism.”